Happy to write and say that young Gio (13) and I completed our wild ride across the steppes of Mongolia. It was Gio's dream since early childhood to ride the Genghis Khan trail on Mongolian horses, but we were in for more adventure than we'd imagined.
Some of the highlights:
Driving nine hours through a sandstorm across Central Mongolia to find the "adulchin" or horse-herder who Byambaa had made arrangements with. The plan was to pick up our horses in the ancient capitol of Karakorum and ride back across steppes, desert, mountains, and alkaline marsh toward Ulaan Baatar. But when we reached Karakorum, we found that the herder had been at a wedding four days earlier and was still drunk; his herd was somewhere far out on the steppes and lost. Stranded in Karakorum we had no choice but to ride half-wild horses caught out on the steppes by a nomad named "Boar" who would make the ride with me, Gio, and Byambaa...
Horse HEAVEN everywhere (like riding through the mythic landscape of “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron” where wild horse societies ruled the land and humans were only occasional distant phantoms), and these Mongolian horses (not the ancestral Przewalski's or “Tahki” that we would later encounter) were nearly identical to our beloved CS horses. Often smaller than our guys, they most resemble the tribal strains like Choctaw—and sometimes come nearly as small as the Havasu. I expected an extension of China, but instead found myself in Lame Deer, Montana with the Northern Cheyenne horse culture three hundred years ago. No more doubts about Bering Strait theory. Bountiful herds of zebra duns, blue roans, black sabinos, grullos, palomino--all of our coloration. Phil Sponenberg once asked me if I wanted to adopt a second son to go along on this ride; I wished he was with us now, splitting this wild rainbow into alleles and genetic controls and giving me some theory on my Indian Pony déjà vu).
Gio rode a small dun with a pushbroom mane shorn in Przewalski punk fashion; I settled on a red roan. Both of them half-wild and caught in the steppe pastures where they’d been since winter. Mongolian saddles brutal. Sleeping in ger (circular felt tents) camps and eating boiled yak we crossed the steppes with the nomads, blown away by the unrelenting vastness around us...marmot holes dangerous...
Day #1 we rode 40 miles, a lot of it crossing desert. Glad that Gio knew how to post. Most Mongols start to ride by 5. Gio started at 3 and by 5 was riding with his adoptive Lakota grandfather and even rode with me in a cattle round-up on a friend’s New Mexico ranch. But since then he has drifted from the saddle (maybe the oedipal father-son resistance that made me drift from anything automotive when my mechanic dad insisted I learn to take apart an engine). So it was great to see it all come back to him out there (not that he had much choice); he was a sight to behold in his traditional Mongol "del" a wrap-around robe with yellow sash (off-set by a Troxel endurance helmet, (a pact I made with his mother). Because of the half-wild mounts we were forced to go with, he did the first part of day #1 on a lead line, led by the nomad Boar.
Coming of age moment #1: At a sweet water stream packed with wild horses and a magnificent long-maned stallion, Gio asked to be let off the lead rope and ride on his own. Boar put Gio through a test, making him gallop out across the steppes with his short whip and circle designated targets such as cows and sheep. Working his whip and shouting “Cshoo!” (the “Go” vocalization), he did great and Boar approved that the kid ride on his own the rest of the way...
A few hours later we were going at a tear-away gallop, four abreast, whips cracking. Gio was no longer playing Mongol; he was LIVING it. Hit some exhilarating speeds while dodging marmot holes. Damn short stirrups and even Byambaa describes the Mongolian saddle as an "ass-breaker."...
.......lost our support vehicle and ran out of water toward day's end. Boar said he knew of a well on the other side of the mountain. Hard riding. On our way we passed an outcast elderly stallion wandering the steppes alone. I had seen him from a distance earlier and could read his story in his shuffling steps and empty looks at the horizon. Heartbreaking...
Coming of age moment #2: maybe it’s the Boyscout in him, but Gio had wisely parceled his drinking water and was now the only rider with H2o. Our Mongol partners moved in on him while I was following a dry creek and they sucked his supply dry. Gio came down to the creek bed where the Mongols were now squatting in the shade. With dirt on his face and fire in his eye he kicked a stone down the bank and faced the grown men. “Left me one stinking sip of water.”
He kicked another stone in their direction. They just stared at the ground. I took Gio aside and whispered that we needed these nomads and that there’d be water on the other side of the ridge. I also wanted the white boy to know thirst and what it’s like to have to ride hard for a drink. He cowboyed up.
Crossed the mountain range and found the primitive well...guarded by a stallion with rasta mane down to the ground. He fought us for water rights, but Boar worked his way in with his short whip to fill a skin. “Marley”, as me and Gio named this stallion, herded thin mares away from us and kicked a yearling colt’s ass for good measure; he continued to rush the well and challenge our mounts, his dreadlocks flying and dragging dust. I wondered if this thirsty harem had belonged to the old demoted stallion. Did Marley, as a young dog soldier, run the old guy out?
.......made offering at an "ovo" or stone pile shrine with prayer flags. This one was circled by the skulls of honored horses, the best endurance racers in recent history. I offered tobacco, added prayer stones to the pile, and sang a Lakota horse song...
That night crossed into the "Province of Bandits" much to the dismay of Byambaa. Spent the night with a nomadic family in their Ger which was heated by dried cow chips. After vodka ceremony, the herder asked us to help him with night chores. Gio helped 14 year-old Dawva separate lambs from their mothers into the night. I gave the herder a flashlight as a gift--he had never seen one before. Gio introduced Dawva to his iPOD and hip hop.
Around a fire and the passing of the copper vodka vessel, I took some pamphlets from my duffel. I passed around the HOA information replete with pics, and then some Red Road Farm brochures featuring the Choctaws. I quietly watched the nomads’ expressions as they huddled and pointed out certain horses with approval. I must say with some pride that they really liked Little Fox in his purple corn coat. “They want to know,” Byambaa translated, “where you found such fine Mongolian horses in America.” When I communicated the history, they still seemed confused. “These are Mongolian horses,” Boar said, almost troubled. He took a brochure, folded it and put it carefully with his few belongings.
A good sleep comes after a good ride: 40 miles, ten miles short of the average Mongol Express Ride (or Orto) in the days of the Great Khans (although riding 150 miles in a day in special instances was not unheard of; unlike the Pony Express, Mongol messengers did NOT change riders).
Next morning the lady of the Ger made us warm oorum, a sweet cream spread on bread, and salty milk tea. Gio gave Dawva a gift and we rode on, starting what would be a fast 20-25 miles...
Should note that I made this ride with multiple fractures to last rib and chondrocostal separation (rib cartilage torn away from breast bone), result of a wreck on the wild roan at the outset of Day #1 ride...damn water bottle. Like I didn't learn a lesson with Little Fox 2 summers back. No chance of bucking out one of these guys in a Mongolian saddle....
In Tim Severin’s “In Search of Genghis Khan”, he describes the gait of the Mongolian Pony as “flat, jarring, and ruthlessly hammering.” Doing 60 miles of rough terrain at that gait with fractured and separated ribs kept bringing that description back to me. I took a 2-point stance and was grateful that I had just come from two months of intense kung fu training in China. Legs had flex and strength and balance was in tune, what the Chinese call centering your “chi”; I was able to float clear in the hard trots. Whenever Gio looked at me worried, I’d smile and yell the Mongolian “YOW-WEE!” the kind of local “yee-ha!”
Riding through alkaline marsh, a kind of obstacle maze of ruts and swollen grass mounds, I watched Boar ride his 4 year-old little Black in a kind of rapid-fire Paso gait with effortless skill, and I marveled over the fact that he caught the horse completely wild four days ago. I asked him, through Byambaa, how the Mongolians train their endurance mounts:
“We taste the sweat,” he said. At the beginning of a horse’s training, the sweat will taste thick and dirty and we call this a ‘mud sweat.’ After a few more weeks of adding miles and time, the sweat begins to clear to a ‘clay sweat.’ Ultimately, after about a month, the horse will break a ‘pure sweat,’ and that’s when we know he is in condition. It tastes so clear and sweet you can drink it.”
Byambaa tells us a story about his favorite horse: he had him since he was five and racing him. They were so close that once, during an epic crossing, a monsoon rain hit and the horse sheltered little Byambaa through the night, standing like a barricade in the middle of flat steppe. For hours, watching over him. In later years, during another long ride, eye worms were making his beloved horse crazy. He claims that he used his tongue the way he would use a damp cloth to clear the worms and soothe his best friend. “I licked those worms out of his eyes,” he said. “That’s how much I loved him.” When he went away to school, he would love to come back home and mount up, ride away for days. One day he came home and couldn’t find his horse. “My grandparents had eaten him,” he said. He broke into laughter, shook his head, then rode out ahead of us as if to be alone with this memory. Gio and I exchanged looks. “We eat horse,” he called back, and after translating it into Mongolian, Boar nodded. I told him that this was the one aspect of Mongolian horsemanship that did not remind me of the Northern Plains tribes who had a spiritual bond with their horses. “So do we,” he said. “Call it the spirituality of practicality.”
Eventually reached Ulaan Baatar, filthy and hungry. Reached our destination which was Hustai Wild Horse preserve. The minister of wild horse affairs was due to meet me. But when we arrived Byambaa received an urgent message. “The minister had an emergency. Apparently, there was a kidnapping in the night. An abduction.”
“A political one?” I asked.
“No, No,” Byambaa said. “ A mare abducted a new foal from another and ran away with it. Yet she’s refusing to let it nurse. The minister is out investigating.” We spent the day observing the zebra-striped Tahki’s and feeling like we were watching ancient pictographs come to life. Similar to the domesticated Mongolian horse (if you could call our bucking broncos that), the Tahki’s have two extra chromosomes. They’re making a fine comeback in Mongolia and it was inspiring to watch them graze and then run from us to higher ground.
Spent night in old Genghis Khan ger camp (although Gio wants me to spell it more accurately as Chinggis Khan). Proud of the blonde nomad. We did the dream, one we almost let slip past us because life can get so busy.
On the way to catch our small plane to Beijing, we stopped at another ovo and added a stone to the pile of earth offerings. The Lakota make similar offerings to Wakan Tanka “the Great Mystery.” The Mongolian people make their offerings to “The Eternal Blue Sky.”
Saying goodbye, Byambaa looked at Gio and said, “to think that an American kid has always had such love for my country and culture makes me feel proud.” He teared up a little. “I liked the spirit in this ride, Guys,” he said, and he hugged us both goodbye, apologizing when he squeezed my ribs. “Yow-wee,” he said, and he headed off. He was limping a bit from the 60-miler and he looked back with a grin of confession. “Ass-breaking saddles,” were his parting words.
We thank this amazing horse culture that lives on, the nomadic families that welcomed us, and the remarkable little horses that carried us the distance...
As for the nomad Boar, he is still riding out on the Steppes with pictures of Colonial Spanish Horses crumpled in his saddle pouch. “Fine Mongolian horses are in America,” he is telling some herdsman right now.
"Meseruke taragon tafti'yo" (may your herd fatten well)
Owner of Red Road Farm, founder of the Choctaw Indian Preservation Program,
Author of Hidalgo, Spirit, Stallion of the Cimmaron and many other classic American Films
HOA Publicity Committee
More Pictures from the Ride!
John and his Mongolian mount, a red roan.
Gio pausing to look over the steppes.
A bay herd stallion poses for John while at the water hole.
A black tobiano mare and black overo foal at the water hole.
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